Tea was found in southwestern China some 2,000 years ago (Read more in "How do we know the Chinese drank tea first?"), and Sichuan was the first area to have tea trades. At first, people used other items or products to exchange for tea. The first tea trading in the world was believed to have been done with the Middle East countries.
Tea gained cultural prominence, popularity, and national status long before Lu Yu published the Classic of Tea. The Tang dynasty saw the imperial courts establishing the "directorate of tributary trade" to oversee tea trading, and the imperial tea factory to supply the imperial courts with royal tea. Because of tea's development and status in China, it was also carried as gifts when delegates visited other countries, or given to dignitaries when they visited China. This has helped to spread tea to the world.
Historical records have shown that China was already exporting tea to elsewhere in Asia in the 5th century. At that time, tea was used to exchange with the Turks. When Princess Wencheng was married to Tibet in 640 A.D., she also brought tea with her, spreading the tea drinking culture to the Tibetans. China started trading with Japan by the end of the 6th century. And later centuries saw Chinese tea spreading farther and farther around the world.
1. Chinese tea exported to the European countries
The history of world tea trades started in the 17th century. Different kinds of tea were imported to some of the European countries, such as Holland, Britain, France, Russia, etc. and further to the American continents.
In 1607, Hollanders started transporting tea to the West via Java from Macau, and selling them to the other European countries and the American continents. From this time, tea trades between China and the West started. By the end of the 17th century, British East India Company started exporting large amounts of tea back to Britain, making it the largest importing country of the time.
The amount of tea exported to the other countries reached its peak in 1684 when the Qing Government discontinued the boycott. Until the 18th century, tea culture in the West had been growing rapidly and it brought a huge flow of money to the markets for those countries.
2. Chinese tea exported to Russia and United States
Apart from the United Kingdom, Russia and the United States were also among the biggest tea importing countries at the time. Tea trading between the Chinese and the Russians started after an agreement was signed in 1689. And after the American War of Independence (1775 - 1783), the Americans started having tea imported directly from China as well.
Tea was such a popular and important commodity that it was even a subject of political and trade controversy. Click here to read more about an "Act" that changed the world.
3. New tea being exported
Since the 17th century, places like the Middle East, South Asia, Europe, North Africa, and North America had established world trade in tea with China. From then on until the 18th century, China was the largest tea provider in the world.
Things started to change around the mid 18th century, when the British began looking elsewhere for places to plant tea. It was a result of the surging demand for tea and Britain’s trading deficit with China. (As Britain's products where not demanded by the Chinese, the British imported more from the Chinese than it exported to them; this created a trading deficit for the British. And it finally led to the outbreak of the Opium War.)
Holland and Britain brought in tea and tea technique from China and found fields for tea planting in their Asia colonies, such as India and Sri Lanka (Why these 2 places? You can probably find out more about tea's growing habitats in "Where did tea come from? - Growing Habitats"). From the beginning of the 19th century, they no longer needed to rely on China's tea exports; and China had since lost its leading position in world tea trading.